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RTPI planners to draw up Brexit border scenarios for Ireland

Words: Simon Wicks
Londonderry / iStock-629949852

Planners in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will work together to draw up scenarios for a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit, following a joint conference in Dundalk.

‘Planning Across Boundaries in a Changing Context’ was organised by RTPI Ireland and RTPI Northern Ireland to discuss the impact of Brexit on border arrangements between the two countries.

Post-Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland (NI) and the Republic of Ireland (RoI) will be the only land border between the EU and the UK.

But, as the conference heard, the communities around Derry (NI) and Donegal (RoI) in particular are so interlinked that any change to current 'invisible' border arrangements is likely to be extremely disruptive to people’s lives. “People are very, very scared about this,” said Michael Gallagher, senior economist at Derry and Strabane Council. “People’s livelihoods are at great risk.”

The conference heard from a variety of speakers about the various ways in which the communities either side of the border were enmeshed, socially, environmentally and economically.

Colm McCoy of Ireland’s department of housing, planning, community and local government, along with his counterpart from NI’s Department for Infrastructure, Catherine McEvoy, spoke about how the planning systems north and south of the border were moving closer together.

There was already a great deal of cooperation in spatial planning, particularly in transport projects but also in areas such as health, where a bilateral agreement allowed RoI residents to access cancer services at hospitals in NI.

Gallagher developed the theme. Describing the border region as a ‘functional economic market area’ (FEMA), he noted that it had a population of 350,000, 35 per cent of who were under 25. There were 40,000 students in third level education, and 326,5777 border crossings each week over 58 roads between Derry and Donegal.

Many people, he noted, had moved from NI to the RoI at a time when house prices were cheaper, creating border communities in places like Kilderry and Killdane where up to 50 per cent of the population commuted across the border to work.

“Will Brexit change what the border is, or will the border change what Brexit is?”

It was common for people to live in the RoI, to shop in the RoI, to access children’ sports clubs in the RoI, but to work, socialise and access health care in NI. A localised study had found that even a third of Derry Council’s staff commuted over the border each day.

Some businesses, too, had relocated from NI to RoI for economic reasons and were now considering moving once again to the North because of the uncertainty about border arrangements.

“What are the implications of something down the road becoming an international frontier?” he asked. “There will be some opportunities for some people in Brexit. There always are.”

Gallagher continued: “The difficulty for us is that the impacts are disproportionately felt in certain areas – for example, financial services. They’re worried about infrastructure and housing for potential employees.”

He added: “It’s a very different argument for people working in agribusiness.”

Cliff Hague, former RTPI president and planning professor at Heriot Watt University, spoke from a European perspective about mechanisms that had been created to resolve difficulties associated with borders (movement of people and goods, trade tariffs, and so on) within continental Europe.

He argued that solutions to the challenge of finding a working border arrangement between NI and RoI may already exist. In particular, Hague noted:

  • An Irish Sea ‘macro-regional strategy’ put together by the British Irish Council
  • A ‘European grouping of territorial cooperation’ to prepare a shared spatial vision for the borderlands
  • An ‘urban partnership’ based on key shared issues such as health and wellbeing.

He stressed, however, that any solution would require political will, a sound legal framework and a common vision.

The conference ended with an agreement that RTPI from NI and RoI would work together to develop possible scenarios for a hard and soft Brexit so that planners on both sides of the border could better understand the challenges they may face and work with policymakers to create potential solutions to these challenges.

Ultimately, though, there was uncertainty about what the future may hold. As conference co-chair John Downey, chair of RTPI Ireland, observed: “Will Brexit change what the border is, or will the border change what Brexit is?”

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